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Nevada deer management policies in the crosshairs

October 31, 2012 at 08:24 PM

The Associated Press

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Hunkered down near a stand of brilliantly colored aspen trees, Ralph McMullen watched an approaching herd of mule deer through the scope of his rifle.

There were bucks among that herd in the foothills of the Ruby Mountains, including a couple of big ones with nice racks of antlers. He let them pass, focusing his attention instead on a younger animal.

“I decided to go for the smaller buck,” McMullen told the Reno Gazette-Journal ( “I’ve gotten my trophy bucks in the past. Now, I’m more in it for the meat.”

He pulled the trigger, dropped the deer and became one more successful hunter during Nevada’s 2012 deer season.

During a year that saw a major increase in the number of deer allowed to be hunted in the Silver State, the rifle season will soon wrap up across most of Nevada. It’s about to begin along the Carson Range, the Pine Nut Mountains and other points of western Nevada.

Accounts differ on how the season is going, and that’s no surprise considering the level of controversy — stretching from the rugged hunting grounds of the backcountry to the halls of the state Capitol — that continues to dog management of Nevada’s mule deer.

“It’s a passionate thing,” Ken Mayer, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said of an issue that had him fired by former Gov. Jim Gibbons in 2010 and led to a political reshaping of the appointed panel that oversees state wildlife, hunting and fishing policy.

Mayer was rehired as director and the makeup of the Nevada Wildlife Commission was altered in July 2011 by Gov. Brian Sandoval, with the issue of mule deer management central to all of the changes.

“It hasn’t gone away,” Mayer said of the ongoing controversy.

Earlier this month, a further signal of change came with Sandoval’s appointment of Karen Summers Layne — president of the Las Vegas Humane Society — as the newest member of the wildlife panel.

Deer tags increased substantially

In May, the new wildlife commission OK’d a 66 percent increase in the number of mule deer tags issued to Nevada and out-of-state hunters in 2012, from 14,919 to 24,795. Typically, nearly 40 percent of hunters succeed in bagging a deer, wildlife officials said.

Biologists justified the increase, accompanied by increases in the number of hunting tags issued for elk, antelope and bighorn sheep, in part because of back-to-back winters of first wet, then dry conditions. The heavy winter of 2010-11 nourished abundant plants for deer and other big game to feed on, while the mild winter of 2011-12 allowed more young animals to survive.

Biologists estimated the number of mule deer in Nevada to be 112,000, up from 109,000 last year. The number of bucks — a key measurement biologists use to gauge the status of a deer population and the level of hunting it can support — was put at 35,000.

This year’s deer tag increase followed a decision in May 2011 by the Gibbons-appointed wildlife commission to reduce tags issued by 25 percent. The commission’s majority at the time described the decrease as needed to protect a dwindling deer herd and accused Mayer and colleagues of seeking to increase hunting numbers to raise revenue.

The makeup of the commission has changed, as has the number of deer to be hunted. But the arguments remain the same.

“We’re overharvesting,” insists Scott Raine, the wildlife commission’s former chairman and the last remaining Gibbons appointee still serving on the panel.

Raine said he expects this year’s deer harvest to be relatively healthy — largely due to the curtailed 2011 hunt — but said the large numbers hunted this year will ultimately hurt the herd.

“Next year, especially, we’re going to start to feel the effects,” Raine said. “We’re going to have some major problems.”

Raine, owner of a market in Eureka, talks to hunters daily and said they’re not happy with the situation this year. Among their concerns, Raine said, is a spike in the number of hunters in the field, a problem he links to the increased 2012 tags.

“Today, I probably talked to eight or 10 hunters, and they all have an opinion. So far, I have yet to hear a positive one about what’s going on,” Raine said. “I hear a lot of people say they would just as soon not hunt if there’s this many people and so few deer.”

Raine insists the modeling used to estimate Nevada’s mule deer population is based on false assumptions or conjecture and that the numbers are far lower than cited.

“They’re just wild guesses,” he said.

Predators still topic of debate

Raine and other critics continue to insist Mayer and his biologists fail to adequately consider the impact mountain lions and coyotes have on deer they prey upon. The Gibbons-appointed panel repeatedly pushed for more aggressive programs to kill the predators, usually over the objection of state biologists who said the move wasn’t supported by science.

“It’s a huge problem, and it’s swept under the rug because it’s not in vogue, politically, within the Department of Wildlife,” Raine said.

Predators are the biggest problem facing mule deer, agrees Las Vegas resident Cecil Fredi, president of Hunter’s Alert, a sportsmen’s group now promoting a letter-writing campaign urging Sandoval to again make substantial changes in how the Department of Wildlife is run.

Mountain lions alone, Fredi argues, are killing more deer than Nevada herds can handle.

“What is it? It’s predators,” Fredi said. “But it’s not politically correct to kill one animal to help another.”

Fredi also accused the department of increasing tags to bring in more money.

“There’s no doubt,” Fredi said. “They’re managing for money.”

Mayer stands by his department’s numbers when it comes to the size of Nevada’s mule deer population, which he said is “stable and increasing.”

Predators might be a factor, but they’re only one of many, Mayer said. A far more significant one is continued loss of deer habitat to wildfire, invading vegetation and development, he said.

“It’s about habitat. It’s about predation. It’s about development on the range. It’s about what Mother Nature provides. It’s a real complex deal,” Mayer said. “I think we have the best team in the West to figure these things out.”

The idea that the state can “stockpile” bucks by reducing hunting is flawed, Mayer said. Too many bucks are also unhealthy for a deer population and can increase fawn mortality when they dominate important habitat, he said.

Mayer acknowledges that he is growing weary of constant attacks by “self-proclaimed wildlife experts.”

“It’s clear they have a personal passion but don’t understand wildlife science,” Mayer said. “I think it just comes down to control. They want to be in control.”

Revenue grab denied

Mayer and colleagues bristle at the notion that they would recommend an increase in hunting as a means to increase revenue through sale of hunting tags, licenses and associated fees.

“The numbers are what they are. We just look at the biology, strictly at the biology,” said Tony Wasley, the Department of Wildlife’s mule deer expert.

“Our job is to make biologically based recommendations, not to second guess social expectations,” Wasley said. “Nowhere in the department’s entire tag quota decision process is there a step that involves any financial considerations. This is never done. Biologists will not sacrifice herd health for the sake of money.”

Critics often point to deer numbers in the late 1980s, when conditions combined to boost the population to unprecedented levels, topping out at more than 251,000 in 1988, Wasley said. Nevada then experienced a lengthy drought followed by a deadly winter in 1992-93, both of which dramatically reduced the deer population.

Today’s numbers, Wasley said, are closer to what should be expected on average.

“Everybody wants to set the bar unrealistically high,” he said.

Jack Robb, the Sandoval-appointed commissioner who now chairs the state wildlife panel, said he’s entirely comfortable with this year’s decision to significantly increase the number of deer tags. He said he believes population estimates to be accurate.

“Our data is better than it ever has been,” Robb said. “I believe we do have good science to back up what we’ve done. I can tell you it doesn’t come down to funding, and I wouldn’t let it come down to funding.”

McMullen, who is giving friends the meat from the buck he bagged in the Ruby Mountains that early October afternoon, has heard all sides of the deer-population debate.

“I know it’s controversial,” said McMullen, 78. “I would say there’s good arguments on both sides. I really don’t want to take a stand.”

A cancer survivor, the Reno resident killed his buck at the end of a busy week during which he also shot a cow elk and bagged limits of geese, ducks and sage grouse.

“I just had a fantastic season,” McMullen said, adding that the ability to get outdoors and hunt again was a primary goal after battling disease.

“We love to hunt,” McMullen said of himself and his wife, Vicky, a former Miss Nevada who was once named sportswoman of the year. “The main thing is we just love the outdoors. Wildlife is really one of Nevada’s most precious resources.”


Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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